The Political Roles of Pressure Groups in Nigeria


The Political Roles of Pressure Groups in Nigeria

Though pressure groups do not aim to exercise power directly, however, they do share some characteristics with parties.

In particular, they are agencies of representation and participation. They are mechanisms for the expression of interest and opinion and they facilitate popular involvement in politics.

In both these ways, alongside parties, they contribute to the successful working of liberal democracy.

In this article, we shall evaluate the political roles of pressure groups in Nigeria as well as the obstacles that confront them in fulfilling this role.


Origin and Development of Pressure Groups in Nigeria

The formation of pressure groups in Nigeria can be traced to the colonial era. The West African Students Union (WASU) was a major platform used by Nigerians studying abroad to agitate for constitutional reforms.

Reverend I. O. Ransome Kuti was instrumental to the formation of the Nigerian Union of Students in 1940, which was inaugurated by students of Abeokuta Grammar School as well as the Nigerian Union of Teachers.

The primary objective of the students’ union was to oppose tribal separatism among students. The union in addition set up committees to look into general problems facing Nigeria at the time in order to find solutions to them.

In March 1944, students of Kings College, including Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu (later a

Military Governor of Eastern Region) and Ola Oni (later an academic and a socialist comrade) protested against poor accommodation when they were displaced from their original hostels to provide accommodation for soldiers.

Seventy-five of the students were later apprehended, tried for disorderly behavior and expelled by the school authorities.

The Railways Workers Union led by Micheal Imoudu was a major vanguard of the agitations against colonial rule in Nigeria. As its president, Imoudu led a successful campaign of the railway's workers for an increase in the cost of living allowances, which were granted in 1942.

Subsequently, the government invoked the Emergency Defence Regulations against Imoudu, and he was deported from Lagos to Auchi, in the then Benin province on the ground that he was a potential threat to public safety. Unrepentant after his release, Imoudu later played a major role in the 1945 general strike, which almost paralyzed the economic activities of the colonial power in Nigeria.

The militant leadership provided by the late Imoudu in successfully coordinating the strike action earned him the name Nigeria Labour leader No.1. After the granting of independence to Nigeria in 1960, the pressure groups did not relent in their activities. During the First Republic, pressure groups also allied themselves with the socialist movements in the country to help diversify the ideological straitjacket of the Balewa’s era from its conservative to a more progressive posture.

Apart from their notable involvement in the opposition against the Anglo Nigerian Defense Pact pressure groups in the country, especially the labour segment organised a general strike in 1964 to protest the manipulation of the Federal Elections of that year. Their action forced the government to bring in the military to maintain the essential services in the country that were disrupted as a result of the strike.

Some hold the view that the decisions of the Balewa government to involve the military in purely civil works during the strike, in addition to the use of soldiers to suppress the Tiv riots were some of the remote causes of the belief held by the military that it had a guardian role to play in the country. 


Pressure Groups during Military Administrations in Nigeria

Many pressure groups (professional associations and trade unions) operated in Nigeria under the different military administrations in the country. But as it is generally known it is in the character of a military government to abridge the space of engagement for other groups that may be competing for influence in the country.

This is why in the early years of the military regime in Nigeria when the major preoccupation of government was the preservation of the unity of the country, little or no opportunity was given for any that could claim to compete for the allegiance of the citizens with the government or distract its leaders from the pursuit of the national interest.

This was why apart from many professional groups that were mainly concerned with the immediate business and pecuniary interests of their members there was no central labour union with the bark and bite that could make it confront the military on political issues, such as the character and timing of the transition to civil rule programme.

However, in the spirit of the plan to return power to the civilians, the Obasanjo military administration lifted the ban placed on labour unions and their leaders in the country and

Centralized their organization under one umbrella body, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC).

During the Buhari’s regime the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) found their voices against the collapse of public services, neglect of due process and repression and violation of human rights committed by agents of the regime.

The Nigeria Bar Association barred its members from appearing before the Military Tribunals for the Recovery of Public Assets set up by the government to try public officials who ran the affairs of the country during the Second Republic.

NBA’s position was that it was impossible to obtain justice in tribunals headed by military officers. However, the late Gani Fawehimi dissented from the mainstream position of the lawyers when he argued that the primary duty of a legal practitioner was to defend his client, no matter the circumstances.

The late Dr Beko Ransome Kuti also gave bite to the Nigeria NMA when the association organized a strike action to press their demands, which included the implementation of various agreements reached with the government on conditions of service and the reconstitution of the Nigerian Medical Council, among others.

The government tried to break the strike action through propaganda but NMA’s leaders defied all threats by the government to ban it, or blandishments to divide its rank. The government responded to this defiance by proscribing the association, sacked the resident doctors from their jobs and detained its leaders, notably Thompson Akpabio, the President and Beko Ransome Kuti, its General Secretary. Buhari’s Employment, Labour and Productivity Minister, Solomon Omojokun accused the NMA of disruptive tendencies and added that its leadership has been hijacked by the ‘younger radicals’ while the older ones are on the sidelines.

Indeed, we should add that Beko Ransome Kuti cut his teeth as a social crusader and human rights activist during this period, an engagement which he later pursued for the rest of his life, during which he engaged and confronted virtually all the subsequent governments in Nigeria, since1985.

The NUJ was equally vociferous in its condemnation of the government over the conviction of two Guardian journalists under Decree No. 4 of 1984.

The military administration of Ibrahim Babangida was also not comfortable with the idea of militant pressure groups or trade unionists.

For this reason, journalists were cowed and newspapers and broadcasting houses were shut down to stifle the voices through which pressure groups ventilated their grievances against the policies of the administration, especially the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP).

Until the NLC, NUPENG and PENGASSAN were banned by the Abacha military administration the three bodies along with other prodemocracy and civil society groups constituted themselves as the major opposition to the then military regime. Their leaders organized the various protests, civil disobedience public and demonstrations and mobilised the Nigerian peoples against the Abacha’ government.

While the labour union pivoted the struggle at the home front the National

Democratic Coalition led the agitations for the actualization of the June 12 mandate abroad. For their effrontery in challenging the Abacha’s government Comrade Frank Kokori of NUPENG and Milton Dabibi of PENGASSAN spent four and two years in detention respectively.

The NLC remained banned for over four years and was able to find its voice after the election in February 1999 of Comrade Adams Oshiomhole.

Read On: Background and Features of African Politics

Pressure Groups during Civil Rule Nigeria

The leadership of Comrade Hassan Sumonu was also significant in the chronicle of the political activities of the Labour Union in the country, especially during the Second Republic.

To press its demand for a minimum wage for workers in the country, the NLC organised a national strike. It was a successful outing for the Nigerian workers because the action forced the hands of the Shagari’s government to approve a minimum wage of N125 for workers in the country, the first of such concession to workers in the history of the country.

In line with the practice in most countries, the government also proclaimed 1st of May every year as Workers Day or May Day in the country. Comrade Hassan Sumonu’s achievements as NLC president were so outstanding such that after his tenure in office he was later elected to the continental labour union, the Organization of African Trade Union (OATU).

The tenure of Adam Oshiomole as NLC president also coincided with the period when a former military head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo presided over the affairs of Nigeria as a democratically elected president. It is not an overstatement to describe the period as one of an epic confrontation between the NLC and the Nigerian government for the soul of Nigeria.

The Union had earlier successfully negotiated an enhanced minimum wage with the Abdulsalam administration, but the burden of implementation fell on the lap of the Obasanjo’s government.

The first point of disagreements between the government and the NLC was the former reluctance to honour the implementation of the minimum wage, the NLC had agreed with the former administration, citing limited budgetary capacity.

The other issue of disagreement was the hike in the prices of petroleum products, consequent to government’s decision to withdraw subsidies. For almost half a dozen times the NLC in an attempt to force the government to change its policy called the Nigerian workers on strike against their employers, which in several cases led to the office and factory closures, and near paralysis of the nation’s economy.

But unlike the previous military setting in Nigeria where the head of state was a dictator, under a civilian dispensation there are other stakeholders such as the National Assembly in the resolution of industrial disputes when they arose.

There were public hearings at the National Assembly which allowed the leadership of the NLC to bring the issues in dispute into the public domain.

Since National Assembly members are conscious of the fact that they have a date to keep with the electorate to account for their stewardship at the end of their tenure, they are seen to be more likely, than the previous military leaders who have no electoral constituencies, to align themselves to the popular aspirations of their constituents.

This factor makes a democratic environment more amenable to the interests of pressure groups, in addition to providing more space for them to operate.

Similarly, unlike under the military regimes that were in the habit of using ouster clauses inserted in decrees to deny the judiciary of a say in industrial disputes, the industrial arbitration tribunals and courts are usually being put into maximum use, as it has been in Nigeria since the restoration of democratic government in1999.

Read On: Meaning, Types and Functions of Political Parties

Conclusion on the Political Roles of Pressure Groups in Nigeria

Pressure groups play significant roles in the promotion of good governance and sustenance of democracy cannot be overemphasized.

The history of Nigeria from the colonial era to date is replete with the political and engaging activities of pressure group, along with other civil society organizations which perform related functions.

It is not an overstatement to say that the history of Nigeria will be incomplete until a deserving place is allotted to pressure groups and their activities. If different governments in the country had been pre-occupied with destabilizing pressure groups, or suppressing their activities it is only because they are yet to appreciate the complementary role these groups play in shaping people’s oriented public policies.

Our discussions in this article have centered on the political roles of pressure groups in Nigeria and their relevance as linkage devise between the masses and the government. It was revealed in this unit that the organized labour, a major pressure group in Nigeria, was a platform used by the nationalists to engage and confront the colonial regime.

After independence, they continued with this political role by agitating against a plethora of issues such as electoral malpractices, unpopular public policies and misrule by different governments’ in Nigeria.

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